'Highway Patrolman' takes a wild ride on the road to ruin

April 30, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Car 112, where are you? asks Alex Cox's "Highway Patrolman," which closes out the 25th annual Baltimore International Film Festival at 7:30 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Here's the answer: on the road to hell with no brakes and bald tires.

After the film, the festival will offer a closing party, with Mexican food.

Why the burritos and enchiladas? Because Cox, British bad boy and cinema voyager who has wandered the world making thorny, prickly, incandescent and frequently explosive films ("Repo Man," "Sid and Nancy") has cranked out an unlikely project: a low-budget Mexican road picture, in Spanish, complete to herky-jerky single camera, inflated acting styles and cheesy music. Somehow he brings it off.

"Highway Patrolman" is a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress" with .357 Magnums and Ram-charged cruisers; it follows an idealistic young highway patrolman (actually: national policeman, Mexico appearing to lack the state police agencies common to the United States) coming to terms with his moral isolation and the dangerous jackals of the highway. As the production notes amusingly point out, "The idea of Alex Cox making a film about a highway patrolman is as perverse as [avowed atheist] Luis Bunuel making a film about a priest."

Yet if you were expecting -- as I was -- a kind of apocalyptic frenzy from the bad-boy Cox (after all, he made the completely nuts "Walker"), you'll be shocked to experience the film's sobriety, highly refined craft, tight and resonant narrative and classical restraint. It's the most old-fashioned movie Cox has made and one of the best.

Pedro (brilliantly played by Roberto Sosa) yearns to do good, but, exiled to the barren two-lane blacktops of Durango and soon enmeshed in the petty bribery that suffuses the bureaucratic life, he is disappointed to discover a life completely lacking in meaning. He learns quickly that his badge amounts to little more than a franchise to steal and that the highway patrolman's creed, as expressed by a tough old sergeant at the training academy, is, "Pull them over first. Then figure out what they're guilty of."

He is overwhelmed morally as we are visually by the empty immensity of the landscape and the crushing poverty and listlessness of the few inhabitants. His life quickly devolves from a moral quest to a series of small, grim ordeals: He will patrol the highways forever, it seems, shaking down the guilty and innocent alike, disappointing all who believed in him, living from hand to mouth.

A good part of the film is spent watching as the weight of his own expectations crushes and breaks Pedro. His victories are tiny and squalid -- he kills a rabid dog, for example, but in the same mock-heroic moment also shoots a chicken for which he has to pay. Sosa gets the spiritual essence of Pedro's dazed confusion and his encroaching sense of self-loathing.

Despised by his wife (he doesn't take enough bribes), hated by his sergeants (he doesn't write enough tickets), held in contempt by his best friend (he's not aggressive enough), Pedro sinks and sinks. Small disasters dog him. He's shot in the leg by a drunken motorist and will limp forever; in a fit of anger, he destroys his own shiny cruiser and is exiled to the unit's most beat-up and worthless jalopy. He begins to hang out with a prostitute and his wife one night nearly kills him with a knife, a scene of such domestic savagery it could fit in no American cop movie.

In fact, nothing about "Highway Patrolman" feels un-Hispanic. There's not an American moment anywhere in it; it feels intimately, authentically Mexican, without condescension or political correctness. Cox has simply transfused himself into a new cultural identity.

Seemingly unrelated, the incidents build as the pressure mounts on Pedro. When his best friend is killed by dope dealers (as Pedro listens in horror over the radio), he decides he must do something. In an American movie, Pedro's grand gesture would be explosive, melodramatic, pyrotechnical: It's part of the integrity of "Highway Patrolman" that it's scabby, incomplete, more a gesture than an Armageddon. Yet Cox has done, by movie's end, the miraculous: He's made us commit to, and care deeply, for the highway patrolman.


"Highway Patrolman'

Starring Roberto Sosa

Directed by Alex Cox

Released by First Look Pictures


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